That was 30 years ago, but for many Washingtonians, that perception remains.
Although interest in rail travel has soared during the past decade as hordes of young professionals returned to inner city neighborhoods, Union Station remains much as it did following renovations in the mid-1980s.
With its ownership and management sliced among more than a dozen federal and local government agencies, the Daniel Burnham-designed landmark remains an important transportation hub for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, but one where the growing crowds cram its dated corridors, concourses, stairwells and elevators. Though it is the second-most trafficked train station in the country, it still struggles to attract shoppers beyond those passing through on their way to another destination, whether via Amtrak, commuter rail, Metro, regional bus or taxi.
A new generation of plans — some under way, some still on the drawing board — would upgrade nearly every part of the station and maximize the building’s historic bones for both commuters and out-of-towners.
The plans are accompanied by hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate investment pouring into surrounding neighborhoods, with office towers rapidly climbing in the “NoMa” neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue, and H Street Northeast becoming a trendy late-night spot for the 20-something crowd. The District government plans to open a streetcar line that would run along H Street and connect to the station’s northern end.
Betting on the future
Today, Smith is chief investment officer for First Potomac Realty Trust, owner of more than $2 billion of commercial real estate. He and his company are betting big on the neighborhood he once wandered as a teenager.
Until a few years ago, Bethesda-based First Potomac focused on industrial and office properties in the area’s outer suburbs and exurbs, as far south as Virginia Beach. With the revitalization of urban areas, however, it quickly changed its focus, making 23 investments totaling $746.6 million in inner Washington area neighborhoods between 2009 and this past August, when First Potomac and a partner purchased the Greyhound bus station for $46.8 million. It now owns about $250 million worth of real estate within a few blocks of Union Station, including 440 and 500 First St. NW, and 840 First St. NE.
“The draw that we had initially to the neighborhood was the U.S. Capitol. Of course it’s a big employment driver over there,” Smith said. But as Smith and his colleagues looked more closely, they realized that companies looking for space in the area were focused on being close to transit.
“What we found when we were sniffing around, when we were doing more investigation on that neighborhood, is that Union Station is really the hub for all the activities there,” Smith said. “The tenants love it for all the amenities that it has.”